A couple of years ago, a good friend of mine asked me whether I thought teamwork was the solution for professional success.
At that time, I was studying teamwork in great detail since it was the focus of my research. I am a firm believer in collaboration and I will never miss a chance to support its benefits for any organisation, small or big.
Nevertheless, I replied that teamwork is not a quick fix for organisations that function badly and in most cases it is not an optimal solution. Even though I sensed some disappointment in his reaction back then, I still use this little story during my talks and presentations. There are two reasons that I use to back my statement up. Here they are.
even though teamwork GOES top-down in many organisations, there is something wrong with the word ‘easy’, ‘quick’, or ‘magical’.
First, teamwork is not magical. It is rough and it requires hard work. Only then, it has a chance of becoming magical. Even though human beings are social beings, they do not automatically have the right skill set to collaborate with other people.
Learning how to work in a team is a pretty tough job. One needs to re-learn it in every new situation of teamwork or collaboration. It is true that there is something like a general teamwork skill set that an individual can apply in any situation. And that team processes are to a certain extent predictable, which makes it easy to adapt to a new teamwork situation.
However, every teamwork situation involves other people, other focuses, and other goals. More importantly, every teamwork requires trust and security.
Recently, Google conducted a large-scale study on the success factors of teamwork. After studying more than 160 teams within its organisation, the search engine giant found out that while a diversity of expertise and skills, intelligence and talent of team members, and focus on performance are important, they are not vital to successful teamwork.
It is openness and trust of team members towards each other that really facilitates cooperation and working together. Openness and trust allow team members to create the synergy that makes teamwork such a sought-after phenomenon.
Good teamwork is like a happy long-lasting marriage, or for the more liberal readers, a long lasting happy relationship. The involved parties need to invest in it both in good and bad times.
They need to face conflicts and find a way to overcome them. They need to decide not to get in a conflict because it is not worth it and then they should not hold a grudge because they turned out to be right after all.
They need to celebrate their love. They need to learn to appreciate and experiment with the most valuable asset of teamwork: diversity in skills, expertise and personality of the different team members. They need to give a part of themselves for the team to start living and playing.
Good teamwork is like a HAPPY long-lasting happy marriage.
The second reason is that teamwork does not fit in every organization and teamwork is not suitable for every individual.
Nowadays, teamwork is considered a common way of working in many contemporary organisations. In line with the metaphor of a good marriage, I can introduce a metaphor on parenting. Just like children, employees will experiment with what kind of behaviour within an organisation is acceptable in and what kind is not.
Eventually, they will choose the behaviour that is rewarded (or not punished) by organisations. That being sad, not a lot of organisations are good parents when it comes down to breeding team players.
Why? Because organisations reward individual performance, by giving employees an individual, and usually not transparent, salary; because during the annual performance reviews organisations evaluate individual performance, and not the performance of a team; because we see our colleagues being celebrated for their successes that we also contributed to or fired for mistakes they made even though we know everybody makes mistakes and usually a mistake is not a single person’s act.
I’m not trying to say that individual employees should not be valued in organisations; I’m trying to make a point that if organisations want their employees to work as a team, teamwork should also be valued.
In most organisations, almost every job offer requires applicants to be a team player. However, it seems that the persons responsible for writing these job ads did not really think about what it means to be a team player in their organisation and whether it is possible to be a team player in their organisation.
Working together is a lot of fun and it can really enhance performance and outcomes of any joined work effort. But it should not be seen as a magical solution or a quick fix for a bad functioning organisation. It requires some critical thinking about the systems in organisations, a couple of restrictions maybe, and a whole lot more of human-ness.